In India, there are still leprosy colonies.
Over 20 years ago, Becky Douglas didn’t realize that fact. She was focused on raising her 10 children, the oldest of which who was at college.
That’s when her life took a sharp turn. That oldest child, Amber, had battled bipolar disorder for years and had even spent time in institutions getting treatment. Unfortunately, her life ended tragically by suicide.
Douglas was devastated. As she was going through her daughter’s belongings, she found something curious.
“She was sending money to support an orphan in India,” Douglas recalls. “She had a tender spot for the underdog.”
This was something important to Amber, so now it was important to Becky.
For Amber’s funeral, the family asked anyone interested to send money to the orphanage. The response was so great that the orphanage put Douglas on the board of directors.
That’s when Douglas traveled to India for the first time, not knowing it would be the first of many, many trips.
Douglas visited the orphanage, and it was comforting to put a name to the face of the child her daughter had been sending money to support. The orphanage was doing fairly well taking care of its 54 children.
It was the people on the streets who really tugged at her heart strings.
“As we would drive to and from the orphanage, there would be beggars on the streets. They had rotting hands and feet, and many were blind. I had never seen anything like it. I tried not to look, but they’d reach at us for money. We could see the maggots and smell the stench.”
Finally, she asked the driver who these people were. The answer: leprosy-affected people.
Douglas was shocked. “I thought leprosy went out after Bible times. It haunted me at night. I thought, somebody ought to do something.”
Then the thought came: “You’re somebody.”
Rising Star Outreach Is Born
Douglas admits that she didn’t know what she was doing when she decided to help leprosy victims. But she felt compelled to move forward. For Amber. For the poor of India who needed help so desperately.
She gathered four friends around her kitchen table, and they started a nonprofit called Rising Star Outreach, which is headquartered in Provo. When her husband came home, she asked him, “Guess what I did today?”
The idea defied logic. She had no business background and no knowledge of medicine, let alone knowledge about the country of India. Still, they filed for a 501c3 on a hope and a prayer. This was going to happen, one way or another.
First, they needed to hire a doctor, so they raised money. Then they realized that no doctor would even go into a leprosy colony.
“People thought they were cursed,” Douglas explains. “They are the untouchables.”
Of course, that didn’t stop Douglas from helping. With a small team, she flew to India. And instead of waiting around, Douglas dug out wounds of the leprosy victims with a pocketknife, used salt crystals to treat them, and then wrapped them in clean bandages.
Others thought she was nuts. Wasn’t she afraid of catching the bacteria that can eventually lead to disease?
“We were terrified,” she says. “But we learned that leprosy is actually hard to catch. Generally, you have to carry the gene.”
In all her years in direct contact with leprosy victims, Douglas has never contracted the bacteria.
But trying to treat people without the help of medical professionals was slow and not very fruitful. The sores would return, and Douglas and her team would be back, cleaning out wounds and bandaging them. They needed a medical professional to help them figure out how to actually heal the wounds.
What else could they do to get a doctor? Plus, because no one outside the leprosy colonies would associate with them, the people were starving. As Douglas would learn, when a need arose for Rising Star Outreach, all she had to do was wait.
Right People, Right Time
Padma Venkataraman, daughter of the eighth president of India, an activist for her country, had a soft heart for the leprosy affected. She had been trying to help the leprosy colonies for many years, realizing through experience that simply giving them what they needed didn’t help them rise above their terrible poverty and take ownership of their lives.
Clearly, Venkataraman and Douglas needed to meet and join forces.
As it turned out, Douglas had a trip to Washington, D.C. planned and heard that Venkataraman would also be there. Douglas made sure to connect with her in person. In her eyes, it was meant to be.
“She had all the experience we were lacking,” Douglas says.
Since then, Venkataraman has become a huge asset to the nonprofit and the people they were trying to serve. “She opened so many doors. She trained us, and she knew U.N. doctors.”
Finally, Rising Star was able set up a mobile medical clinic with a doctor and nurse, visiting each leprosy colony once a week. It felt like a win. But, like before, the wounds looked the same from week to week. The doctor insisted it was because the patients never did anything he told them to do. Douglas asked Venkataraman for advice.
Venkataraman told her that nonprofits come to India and give things away, which keeps the poor as beggars. But she insisted that if you gave them responsibility for their own well-being and allowed them to lift themselves up, they could become well. So they started charging for their services. Only 1 or 2 rupees, which amounts to mere cents in the U.S.
“Once they started paying, they did everything the doctor told them,” says Douglas. “They did more for themselves. They saw the value.”
Wound self-care was key in helping heal. Once self-care was introduced and done successfully, wounds would take about one month to heal.
What Douglas has learned first-hand: “Give them education and tools, and they can do 1,000 times more.”
The incredible Dr. Seetha joined Rising Star Outreach and runs their program, which currently provides around 30,00 medical treatments per year—which could not have happened without the nonprofit’s team and an army of volunteers.
Rising Star Outreach has never had a shortage of volunteers. It seems that when people learn about the nonprofit’s focus, they are on board, including more than a thousand college students, nearly the entire Marriott family, Mitt Romney’s son, and so many others who want to make a difference. Rising Star Outreach puts them in the trenches, and so often, volunteers emerge with a love for the people and the desire to come back.
One Volunteer’s Story
Alexi Cox and her husband were impressed by Rising Star Outreach’s mission and its impact so far, so they volunteered.
“We spent five months in Bihar, the poorest and most “unliked” state by the people of India. [The nonprofit] was newer to this region, and so we were sent as ambassadors, of sorts, to help determine the needs of the people,” Cox explains.
The husband and wife are both professional photographers, so they documented the progress of everyday life of the people they were helping to serve. It’s a great visual reminder of how humans can reach out to each other.
Cox shares, “This experience and the people taught us several distinct lessons: happiness need not be determined by circumstance; every visitor is special and should be accepted with gratitude and love; crying is often the sign of bravery; when it rains and floods, don’t worry—you don’t need much to give much.”
They had a front row seat as they watched people of all ages overcome great adversity with tenacity, faith, and determination—an experience that will be with them forever.
From Surviving to Thriving
As leprosy was being treated, there was another facet that Rising Star Outreach knew the people needed to fully heal: self-sufficiency. Since no one outside the leprosy colonies interacted with the leprosy-affected, there was basically no commerce—no buying or selling between the regular world and the colonies. A shortage of food and services was wearing the people thin, literally.
Douglas offered food but quickly realized that would only help the people survive for the day. The hope was to help them thrive on their own. But how could they teach the people to become entrepreneurs?
The answer came as a volunteer was serving rice and beans and saw Padma Venkataraman giving micro-loans. These allowed the people to start a small business and pull themselves out of extreme poverty.
One man used his $3 micro loan to buy a teapot and started a tea business. After he paid it off, he got another loan for $8 to purchase a bike, and he quickly paid it off. When looking closely at what this man is offering, it’s clearly more than just tea. It’s dignity, Douglas explains. Offering tea to the community shows them that they are worth these small indulgences.
Others have used loans to start barbershops, ironing businesses, and much more. No loans are extended to men who are known to abuse their families in any way. As a result, men are cleaning up their lives and, as Douglas reports, are happier. Some village women oversee the loans and make sure things go smoothly.
“They take ownership. It’s empowering,” Douglas says.
In the leprosy colonies, Rising Star Outreach is also building toilets, developing clean water, and building community centers. This helps the people grow healthier, as well as gives them a place for weddings, funerals, and other events.
Creating a Brighter Future
Last but not least, Rising Star Outreach focuses on educating children. They’ve built schools to help get them off the streets and stop the cycle of poverty. Young adults have access to computer labs, and younger children live at the school and learn basic life skills as well as to reading and writing.
“There are hundreds of children on the waiting list,” Douglas says. “They come from all over India because they will have a chance at life.”
Harvard partners have been helping teachers there to switch from memorizing facts to problem-solving skills to further help the children, which in turn helps the community lift itself.
The first graduating class included ten students, four of which qualified for medical school. The transformation of so many young people has been astounding.
“They were at the very bottom, and now they are at the top of the education system,” Douglas explains.
Remote learning during the pandemic was a huge challenge, with trying to figure out how to provide internet and devices to the students. They are opening new campuses as quickly as they can to be able to help more students thrive.
There are countless stories of the people of India who have transformed their lives and are breaking the cycle of poverty. They keep going through hardship, much like Rising Star Outreach has done over the years. But Douglas feels like there is a higher power behind it all.
“God has done this,” she says, with a little help from her daughter, who no doubt would be proud of what her mom, the other founders, board members, and volunteers have been able to accomplish.
To donate, volunteer, or sponsor a student, visit risingstaroutreach.org.
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